exploring the world of tennis . . .     
Coaching Tips - Physical (footwork, exercise, movement, nutrition, etc)

Remember the egg-and-spoon race!

I get to drop shots OK, but why can't I control the shot?

Remember the egg-and-spoon race at school? Run with your racket held out in front of you. It's enough to get the racket under the ball and flip it up. Generating power is NOT the objective here.

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Two small steps are better than one big one!

What exactly is "good footwork"?

In tennis, having strong legs is not enough. Good footwork is about speed, balance and agility. You need a fast brain as much as fast legs, because being able to think quick and anticipate buys you time.

Speed enables you to get to the ball, but it's only part of the story. Work at setting yourself for your shots so that you're not hitting off-balance. Agility can be improved by means of drills which have you changing direction and compensating before you hit the ball. If you can't work with a coach, use courtline-touching exercises.

Stay "light" on your toes and use small steps rather than long strides. Remember, two small steps are better than one big one.

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Getting primed for action

I took up tennis recently but I tire quickly. How can I improve my stamina?

Without wishing to be a killjoy, I must say that if you're not used to participating in vigorous exercise you should seek your doctor's permission first. Certainly, if you feel any discomfort or pain when you exercise - stop!

It might be advisable to take up a programme of exercise where you start with regular walking and then progress gradually to jogging and stretching. This should prepare you eventually for some gentle rallying on court.

Assuming your doctor is happy for you to play tennis, allow your body to adjust gradually. Don't go and play a best-of-five-sets singles just yet!

Some attention to diet will probably be required. Again, it's a good idea to consult your doctor about this.

In order to function efficiently, your body needs to maintain a balance of electrolyte minerals such as potassium, which is involved in regulating your heart beat and muscle contraction. A pound of sweat generated from exercise can contain as much as 100 milligrams of this important mineral. Topping up with bananas, dried apricots, peaches, fish, potatoes or orange juice can help replace the potassium lost in sweat.

Carbohydrates are stored in the form of muscle glycogen and act as fuel when you embark on any cardiovascular exercise. They also help to keep your blood sugar levels stable during exercise. It's a good idea, therefore, to have a carbohydrate-rich snack about an hour before you play. Bread, pasta, fruit, yogurt and cereals are high in carbohydrates.

Be sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after you play. Bear in mind that your body needs fluid before you actually feel thirsty! Most sports drinks contain a small amount of sodium which makes you drink more. They also contain a small amount of carbohydrates, which are absorbed quickly by the body, offering you an energy boost.

Finally, warm up and warm down properly by jogging and stretching for five minutes or so.

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Stretching a point!

How can I avoid getting injured all the time?

"I said to the Gym instructor 'Can you teach me to do the splits?'. He said 'How flexible are you?'. I said, 'I can't make Tuesdays.'" (Tommy Cooper)

Playing any physical sport puts you at risk of injury. Some injuries are caused by accidents, some by poor technique and others by overstressing your joints and muscles. Let's consider these categories and see what we can do to reduce the risks.

OK - accidents. You might think these are unavoidable by definition. Not so! You can reduce the risk of accidental injury by paying attention to your equipment and your environment. An obvious example is clearing all the balls from the playing area before you play each point. Do your shoes support your feet properly? Do they fit? Do they still grip the court adequately? Accidents can also be caused by inappropriate behaviour. Do you really need to leap over the net on a changeover? When you send the balls down to the other end of the court between points, do you do it safely? I often see players testing out their fiercest groundstrokes without even checking where their opponents are!

So - moving on to poor technique. Keep getting tennis elbow? Sore shoulder? Bad back? Book a few lessons with a good coach and get him to check over your technique. It'll cost you a bit, but it may save you money in the long term if you eliminate the need for all those visits to the physiotherapist or the chiropractor. You may even become a better player into the bargain! I had a chronic tennis elbow problem some years ago. It got so bad I could barely lift a cup of tea! Eventually, I resolved it by improving the mechanics of my backhand groundstroke. Now I can drink tea all day! Greg Rusedski enlisted the services of Brad Langevad, a biomechanist, to change his techniques and it worked - an injury-threatened career was rescued.

OK, what's left? Ah, yes - overstressing the muscles and joints. Flexibility is an essential part of fitness, especially in tennis where long, supple muscles are important. Yet many of us totally neglect the simple act of stretching. We should do it as a regular daily exercise. Static stretches lengthen muscles and increase their flexibility. They'll make you a faster, stronger, more resilient player and they'll help correct some of the postural imbalances that often develop in sports like tennis, where there is disproportionate stress to joints and muscles (i.e. because you use your racket arm much more than your other one). And, of course, they'll make you a better player because your muscles will be in better condition!

There are stretches for the neck, shoulders, arms, trunk, hips, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. I don't want to stretch the point, but I do want to point out a stretch or two! So here's a few for you (hold each stretch for about fifteen seconds):

  Hamstrings Stand with one leg fully extended and resting on a bench (or anything slightly below waist height). Lean forward towards your leg until you feel the stretch.
  Biceps and chest Stand with your knees slightly bent. Extend your arms straight back behind you and interlace your fingers behind your lower back. Keeping your elbows straight, squeeze your shoulder blades together and lift your arms. Don't lean forward while doing this.
  Triceps Raise your arm and bend it down behind your head so that your hand rests between your shoulder blades. Grasp your bent elbow with your other hand and gently pull on it. Don't let your trunk rotate. Switch arms and repeat.
  Inner thighs Sit on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet together. Grasp your ankles with your hands and lower your knees to the floor. You can use your elbows to press down on your knees to assist the stretch.
  Quadriceps Stand next to a wall or fence or something you can balance against. Bend your leg up behind you and grasp your foot with one hand. Use this hand to pull your leg up and back, keeping your knee pointing down at the ground. Balance against the wall with your other hand. Don't twist your knee. Switch legs and repeat.
  Calf muscles Stand facing a wall and place both hands flat against it. Both feet should be flat on the ground and your toes should all be pointing forwards, one foot 2 or 3 feet behind the other. Keep your back straight and your heel on the ground, bend your front knee and slowly lean forward towards the wall. Switch legs and repeat.

You also to need to warm up properly before playing. Quite simply, if you donít warm up before both stretching and exercising, your muscles are likely to tear. You need to raise the temperature of your muscles, reduce tension and ease your joints effortlessly into exercise. Begin with a few minutes of slow, large movements such as arm swinging and a slow jog around the court to warm up the muscles and raise your heart rate. These days, the experts tend to frown upon the use of static stretches prior to playing. Instead, do a few dynamic stretches such as circling your arms and swinging your legs (using the net post for support). Then progress to some controlled, light rallying.

You can avoid muscle soreness after playing by cooling-down properly. Jog and then walk around for a few minutes until your breathing and heart rate return to normal. Then go through a set of static stretches.

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A drill to turn you inside-out!

Can you recommend footwork practices other than line drills?

And what's wrong with line drills? I think they're excellent!

Boring, you say? Well, ok, what about jumping rope? Vary your speed and rhythm and you can get a whole lot of benefit out of skipping.

Too strenuous, you say? You're kidding! All right then, here's one for you. It's challenging and fun and it's tennis-specific and you can develop racket skills at the same time. What you do is you find someone to practise with, you go on court and rally using just the service boxes. One of you hits crosscourt and the other hits down the line. Change over after a few minutes. Once you've got the hang of it and you're managing to keep the rallies going fairly easily, try doing the same but using inside-out shots, i.e. run outside the line of the ball and play forehands on your backhand wing and backhands on your forehand wing.

When you're really, really good at it, have a go at doing the same on the full-size court.

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Lie down! The commercials are on!

Can you recommend some abdominal exercises?

I'm definitely not a fitness expert or anything, but I know there are some exercises that are okay and some that aren't. When it comes to abdominal exercises, what you shouldn't do is sit-ups. Apparently, these are inefficient and potentially unsafe (they grind the vertebrae in your lower back).

Try these instead. They can be done without the aid of any equipment and they don't take too long - you could do them during the TV commercials!

1. Reverse Crunch:

Lie with your lower back pressed to the floor. Extend your hands out flat to your sides. Crossing your feet at the ankles, start with your thighs perpendicular to the floor (knees bent at 90 degrees). It's important to realise this is the starting position (i.e. don't start with your feet on the floor). Relax your shoulders and contract your abdominal muscles to bring your pelvis up and in towards your rib cage. Your knees should then move towards you and your butt should come off the floor (only a small movement is required to get the benefit of the exercise). Hold the position for a moment and lower slowly. Exhale when you contract, inhale when you return to the starting position. Be careful not to swing your legs to assist with the exercise as you'll end up using momentum and not strength (it may also cause back pain). If you do it properly, regular use will strengthen your lower abdominals.

2. Bicycle Manoeuvre:

Lie with your lower back pressed to the ground. Clasp your hands loosely behind your head for support. Lift both legs about a foot off the floor. Immediately bring your left knee towards your chest while keeping your right leg straight. Try to touch this knee with your right elbow by turning your trunk to the left. Now straighten your left leg and pull your right leg up. Touch your right knee with the opposite elbow by turning your trunk to the right. Continue this push-pull process for as many repetitions as you can, taking four full seconds for each leg action. At this slow, controlled speed, 10 repetitions are good, 15 are very good, and 20 are excellent. Keep your breathing even and relaxed throughout.

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Phew! Change those socks!

How can I avoid blisters on my feet?

Put a couple of extra pairs of socks in your bag!

Blisters often occur when your socks get sweaty. Your feet start sliding around in your shoes.

Change your socks during your match and you should avoid this. It'll make you feel better and fresher too. Oh, and don't forget to take the wet ones out of your bag when you get home!

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Rest is best!

What can I do about tennis elbow?

Tennis Elbow, or to give it it's scientific name, Lateral Epicondylitis, is a painful condition affecting the outer part of the elbow, making it tender to the point where even lifting a cup of tea can cause pain to radiate down the arm. It's similar to Golfer's Elbow which affects the inside of the elbow and nearly half of all tennis players are afflicted with it at some time or another. It can be caused by many different things including heavy lifting and poor technique (typically the backhand) and when you get it, it typically lasts for 6 to 12 weeks, but it may be as little as 3 weeks, or as long as several years.

Tennis Elbow

Here's the scientific explanation of what Tennis Elbow really is. The initial damage consists of tiny tears in the connective tissue that holds the muscles to the bone. The tissue becomes prone to repeated tearing, causing the formation of rough, granulated tissue and calcium deposits. It becomes irritated and inflammation sets in, causing swelling. The resulting pressure can cut off the blood flow and pinch the radial nerve, one of the major nerves controlling muscles in the arm and hand.

Treatment starts with REST. Yes, sorry, that means not playing tennis for a while! Tendons don't receive the same amount of oxygen and blood as muscles do, so they heal more slowly. So be patient! Remember, we're talking weeks, not days! When the pain does disappear, try massaging the affected area. This should relieve stress and tension in the muscles. And then finally, look up a physiotherapist and ask for exercises to strengthen the area to prevent re-injury. A typical strengthening exercise involves repeatedly bending your wrist with your elbow cocked and your palm down - progressing gradually to the use of hand weights.

There are physiotherapy treatments, including heat or ultrasound therapy. Your doctor may also advise the use of anti-inflammatory drugs and ordinary pain killers (analgesics), or, in really stubborn cases, corticosteroid injections. These injections dramatically reduce inflammation but cannot be used long-term because of potentially damaging side effects.

When you start playing again, be sure to warm up your arm with gentle stretching for at least 5 minutes. A useful exercise involves grasping the top part of your fingers and gently but firmly pulling them back towards your body. Keep your arm fully extended and your palm facing outwards. And go easy with the tennis - don't overdo it! If you relapse and develop severe pain, pack your arm in ice for 15 to 20 minutes and see your doctor. If it goes ok, get a suitably qualified coach to check out your technique.

You can buy a brace from a sports shop or pharmaceutical supplier. Fit it around your forearm just below the elbow, but be careful not to cut off circulation. Braces are effective only in so far as they restrict the amount you can use your elbow.

The best way to relieve Tennis Elbow is to stop playing. The pain won't go away completely unless you stop stressing the joint. Don't jeopardise your chances of a complete recovery by going back on court too soon!

When you are able to get back on court again, here are a few simple tips for you:

1. Keep a firm wrist. If you hit with a bent wrist or if you use a "wristy" action to produce topspin, you increase the risk of tennis elbow (this is especially so on the backhand side). Keeping the wrist firm throughout contact disperses the shock throughout the arm and avoids concentrating it on the lateral epicondyle of the elbow. Using a brace may help.

2. Restring your racket with a lower string tension.

3. Make sure your grip size is correct. Using a grip size which is too small for you can contribute to tennis elbow. Use an overgrip if necessary.

4. Use good footwork to ensure your contact point is correct for every shot.

5. Avoid playing on faster surfaces and avoid hitting wet, heavy or old balls.

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Don't take a shortcut across a minefield!

What supplements can I take to help recovery?

Tennis players, in common with other athletes, are often tempted to take supplements as a kind of shortcut to fitness. They're a convenient way of rehydrating, recovering from soreness or injury, taking in nutrients and correcting deficiencies (e.g. iron deficiency).

These days, sportsmen and sportswomen need to be aware that the area of supplements is a bit of a minefield and you have to watch your step very carefully. Even if you get advice from a doctor, trainer or sports nutritionist, it's you that must take responsibility for ingesting banned substances.

It's worth bearing in mind that this minefield has no map! The people who make or sell supplements do so in order to make a profit. Supplements are regulated in the same way as foods - NOT in the same way as pharmaceuticals. Good marketing is no guarantee that a product is 'clean'. Different countries have different labelling laws. The label you're reading may be inaccurate or incomplete.

As a rough guide, supplements which are advertised as 'muscle building' or 'fat burning' are the most likely to contain a banned anabolic agent or stimulant. Don't be misled by terms such as 'natural' or 'herbal' (and this includes many cold cures, cough medicines and decongestants). You certainly shouldn't use anything from an unknown source, even if you got it from a trainer or another player.

The only safe way to negotiate this minefield is to avoid it altogether. Turn your attention to an appropriate training regime and a healthy, well-balanced nutritional diet. Following a high-carbohydrate diet during a tournament should help to ensure that your body has adequate glycogen stores to help with performance and recovery.

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Read this - quick!

What drills can I use to improve my reactions?

Physical reactions tend to slow down as you get older owing to deterioration of tissue at the nerve fibres, but if you play plenty of tennis, this can be offset by improvements in your anticipation. Your anticipation skills can be improved simply by playing plenty of tennis. The following drills may also speed up your reaction times by improving the efficiency of your co-ordination and movement. Remember to warm up thoroughly first.

Rapid Fire:

You stand in a volleying position while your practice partner stands near the "T" (the junction of the service box lines) and feeds you half a dozen balls in rapid succession. You attempt to get a racket on as many as possible using quick feet and hands. The quality of your volleys is not important. Watch the angle of your partner's racket to anticipate the direction of the ball.

Crazy Bounces:

Catch a crazy reaction ball thrown (or rolled) to you by your practice partner. (These are typically six-sided or pyramid-shaped balls that produce unpredictable bounces.)


You stand facing a wall without your racket while your practice partner throws balls against the wall from behind you. You have to catch the rebounds. As a variation, use a racket and volley the rebounds back against the wall.

Ball Drop :

You stand with your back to the net while your practice partner stands about ten feet away on the same side of the court (halfway between you and the service line). He extends his arms out sideways at shoulder height, holding a ball in each hand. He drops one of the tennis balls and you sprint to catch it before it bounces twice. Return and repeat.

Follow The Leader:

Your practice partner jogs/runs/sprints randomly around the court and you try to shadow her as closely as possible.

Blind Volleys:

You stand in a volleying position while your practice partner feeds you balls from the baseline. You must close your eyes until you hear the sound of ball on racket and then you open your eyes, try to locate the ball and volley it. Once you're used to this, try it again, but with your back turned to the net.

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Take this with a pinch of salt!

How can I prevent muscle cramps?

As far as I'm aware, no one knows exactly what triggers a muscle cramp. It's believed to be either lack of hydration, lack of calcium, electrolyte imbalance or actual muscle damage caused by overexertion.

1. Hydration.

To reduce the risk of dehydration, simply drink more than enough fluids before, during and after your match.

2. Calcium.

Apparently, calcium plays an essential role in muscle contractions, so it makes sense to include some calcium-rich foods (e.g. yogurt or low-fat milk on cereal) in your diet.

3. Electrolyte imbalance.

Lack of sodium and potassium can contribute to cramps. Drinking an isotonic drink and eating a potassium-rich fruit such as a banana should help with this. If you're unsure about the level of sodium in your daily diet, you should consult your doctor or a sports nutritionist - there are important health issues involved here and I'm afraid I'm just not qualified to advise you.

You should definitely ensure your muscles are in good condition by means of regular stretching and exercise. When you get a cramp, stretch and massage the affected muscle.

The role of nutrition in the prevention of cramps is a specialised subject and I'm not a doctor or a sports nutritionist or any kind of scientist, so take my advice with a pinch of salt (and a yogurt and a banana and a sports drink)!

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You're going out to do what?!

I want to improve my endurance without having to run long distances. How can I do it?

You don't have to pound the streets for hours to build up your strength and stamina. There's a training method known as fartlek training (a Swedish term meaning literally "speed play").

Fartlek is a type of interval training in which you alternate between high intensity and low intensity spells of exercise. Typically, for example, you might try a workout that consists of alternately running and walking. There are no rules as to how far or how fast you should run. And there are no rules about how far or how slow you should walk. It's up to you. Make adjustments according to what you want to achieve and how you feel at the time. You could try two minutes of running alternating with two minutes of walking, but it's easier and more interesting to use visual markers. For example, tell yourself that you'll run to the oak tree, walk to the next telegraph pole, then run to the white parked car, etc. Training in this way can help you avoid injuries that arise from relentless medium or high intensity exercise. Some studies suggest it's also more efficient in terms of burning fat.

You can apply the same principle to other types of activity, such as climbing up and down the stairs. Again, you'd alternate the high intensity activity (running up the stairs) with the low intensity activity (walking down them).

One of the main goals of physical training is the improvement of the body's aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. The aerobic system uses oxygen to metabolise carbohydrates into energy. The anaerobic system, on the other hand, does not use oxygen. It draws energy from muscle glycogen for short bursts of activity such as sprinting, jumping or lifting. The by-product of anaerobic activity is lactic acid which is responsible for the soreness you feel after exercise. Compared to continuous medium or high intensity exercise, use of fartlek training reduces the build-up of lactic acid.

Just one thing. Unless you're Swedish, avoid telling people you're going out to do some fartlek. They may mis-hear or misunderstand you!

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Kick butt before you even start your match!

How should you warm up before a match?

The idea of warming up is to get the blood flowing and raise your body temperature prior to playing. It should take about five minutes, at the end of which you should be breaking a light sweat.

Obviously, stretching has a role to play in getting your muscles prepared for exercise. There are two main types of stretching - static stretching, which is holding a position without movement, and dynamic stretching, which involves moving while stretching, e.g. arm swinging, knee rotations, etc.

Scientific research suggests that prolonged static stretching immediately before a game hinders muscle activation for a while, so it is better to do a bit of light jogging and some tennis-specific dynamic stretching instead. Static stretching should still have an important role in your training regime - it is vital for improving general flexibility - but it should be performed after activity, i.e. when the body is warm. As well as increasing muscle length, static stretching is thought to speed recovery and help prevent soreness.

Tennis-specific dynamic stretching exercises might include arm circling, butt kicks, jogging in place, front and side lunges, arm circling with a racket, jumping jacks, side-skipping and performing tennis strokes without a ball. The exercises should start fairly modestly and gradually increase in intensity and range of motion.

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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